In the immediate aftermath of World War I, many Americans attributed the naval arms race between Great Britain and Germany as a factor leading to the cataclysmic conflict and had little appetite for further naval spending by the United States. Influenced by pacifist voices as well desiring to cut the budget, President Warren Harding invited hosted a naval arms confrontation in Washington between 1921-22 that resulted in an understanding between the five-post World War I naval powers of the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, France and Italy to place a moratorium on new capital ship construction and impose tonnage restrictions on the fleets of the five signatory nations.
Advocates for sea power within the U.S. Navy were not pleased with what were seen as anti-naval developments and one of the strongest advocates for sea power, Captain Dudley Knox, recognized the public relations value of American naval history to convey to the American public the importance maintaining a strong Navy. Writing in the January 1926 Naval Institute Proceedings, Knox argued that many historical records that served as primary sources for telling the Navy’s great story were hidden away in the Nation’s attics and closets. Calling for a successor organization to the New York-based Naval Historical Society that had been in decline, Knox called for the creation of what would become the Naval Historical Foundation that was incorporated as a non-profit organization in the nation’s capital in March 1926. 1
The incorporation application listed the objectives of the foundation as educational and literary through the “collection, acquisition, and preservation…of manuscripts, relics, books, pictures, and all other things and information pertaining to the history and traditions of the United States Navy and Merchant Marine” plus “the diffusion of knowledge respecting such history and traditions, either by publication or otherwise.” 2
At the inaugural held om March 23, 1926. Rear Admiral Austin Knight, author of Knight’s Modern Seamanship was elected as the organization’s first president. The membership of the new organization grew to include the former Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe in World War I, Vice Adm. William S. Sims, and a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. With a trust fund seeded with a $1,000 contribution from the U.S. Naval Institute, The Naval Historical Foundation began a mission of searching for and acquiring papers, artifacts, illustrations and other historical items. With the recent opening of the National Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK, the Naval Historical Foundation petitioned the regents of the Smithsonian Institute for a similar facility in the nation’s capital. Turned down, the foundation, led now by retired Adm. William L. Rodgers, would pursue the concept of a national naval museum on the Mall. Though the organization had a strong friend in the White House with
President Roosevelt, the economic doldrums of the Great Depression meant the Navy Museum on the Mall would not come to fruition. Eventually, the Foundation would make an arrangement to acquire the carriage house of the Stephen Decatur Home located on the northwest corner of Lafayette Square across from the White House for use as a museum. The small museum would be open to the public for thee decades starting in 1950.
In the meantime the Foundation initiated a publication program in 1932 with the publication of – The Early History of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Marine Service (1789-1849).
Following the departure of Admiral Rodgers, Adm. Joseph Strauss led the organization from 1943 until 1946. Needing a capital campaign to make what would become known as the Truxtun-Decatur Naval Museum, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King took charge as president and led a vigorous fund-raising effort, aided by his Vice President, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Health issues forced Fleet Admiral King to step down in 1949. His successor, Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy would complete the capital campaign and lead the foundation during the next decade. On May 18, 1950 the new Truxtun-Decatur Naval Museum opened its doors with its first exhibit entitled: “Commodore Thomas Truxtun and Stephen Decatur and the Navy of their Times.” Shortly thereafter, noted naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison gave a talk on “The Battle of Midway.”
Besides launching the new museum, Leahy finalized arranged with the Library of Congress to hold and provide custodial care for the Foundation’s growing manuscript collection that was being maintained at a warehouse at Fort Washington in Maryland south of Washington. Those documents were formally donated to the nation in 1998 and can be assessed through its Manuscript Division Reading room. With the success of the Morison talk, Leahy continued a lecture series on subjects of naval historical interest to Washington-area members and guests. Later co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute, the series continued until 1967.
With Leahy’s passing, long-time Foundation secretary Dudley W. Knox fleeted up to president and served until his death in 1961. During his short tenure he initiated a film series designed to educate America’s youth about naval history and the relationship of sea power in relationship to the national welfare. With the assistance and cooperation of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, the Foundation placed seven films with the American Film Service for distribution. Covering broadly the early history of the Navy, they were entitled: The War of Independence, 1775-1783; Naval War with France and Tripoli; The War of 1812, World Wide Operations in Peace and War (1815-1869); Civil War, Parts I&II; and Navy Decline, the New Navy and War with Spain (1863-1898.) Two more films were added to the program that lasted into the 1980’s. These films were widely viewed. In 1977 an estimated 45,000 students in 24 states saw at least one of the films.
Towards the end of Knox’s tenure, the members of the organization approved and adopted new by-laws that provided for a board of directors and a chairman. Adm. Robert B. Carney served for two nearly decades as the first chairman. Vice Adm. John F. Shafroth relieved Knox as president and served in that position until 1967.
During Sharoth’s tenure the Foundation expanded its publication programs. He initiated a Spring and Fall report to the membership. In 1963, an article on naval history was inserted into this newsletter. By the Fall of 1979, the expanded newsletter was renamed Pull Together, a name taken from the Queenstown Association, a group of veterans who served in Ireland with the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy during the first World War. Besides the newsletter, the Foundation published a pamphlet series to cover subjects that were too large for treatment in the newsletter. Nearly three dozen monographs would be published over the next three decades with early titles such as I was a Yeoman F (1967); The Incredible Alaska Overland Rescue (1968); and The Enlistment, Training, and Organization of Crews for Our Navy Ships (1972).
Vice Adm. Walter S. Delany became president in 1967 and lead the Foundation until his death in 1980. During his tenure the Navy consolidated many of its historical entities and the Naval Historical Center (now the Naval History and Heritage Command) became an official entity beginning in 1975. The Navy Department Library was one of the entities that would become part of the Naval Historical Center. Delany’s passion for the library was such that the present reading room was dedicated in his honor.
Just before he passed away in 1980, Delany hired Capt. David A. Long ,who had retired as the Deputy Directory of Naval History at the Naval Historical Center, to serve as an executive director to perform the daily operational functions for the organization. Long served in this position until 1988. With the loss of DeLany and the retirement of Carney a year later, the Foundation turned to two former Chiefs of Naval Operations for leadership. Adm. James L. Holloway, III began an 18-year tenure as president in 1980. Adm. Arleigh A. Burke would serve a four-year term as chairman, beginning in 1981.
Under the leadership of the two admirals, the Foundation reviewed the status of the Truxtun-Decatur Museum and determined that the Foundation would be better positioned to promote the Navy’s story to the American public by supporting the Navy Museum at the Washington Navy Yard, an entity that owed its existence to Chairman Burke, who two decades earlier as the Chief of Naval Operations, had been impressed with naval museums in Europe.
With the closing of the Truxtun-Decatur Naval Museum, the Foundation assumed a direct support role for the Navy’s flagship history museum. In 1983, the Foundation-operated Pilot House Gift Shop opened, with a portion of the profits set aside for the museum. The Navy Museum Store continues to serve the visiting public today.
During the Burke-Holloway stewardship of the Foundation, the foundation initiated a committee to raising funds to acquire museum quality furnishings for Tingey House, the new home for the Chief of Naval Operations on the grounds of the Navy Yard. The previous home of the CNO at the Naval Observatory had been acquired for use by the Vice President of the United States. In decades following the creation on the “Tingey House” fund, the Foundation has donated nearly $200,000 for the purchase and repair of furnishings. Also, in 1985, Foundation director Adm. Jerauld Wright, began a campaign to restore the birthplace of John Paul Jones in Kirkbean, Scotland. The Foundation’s “Friends of John Paul Jones” group raised $50,000 towards the project and continues to urge support for this American naval heritage site.
The son of Adm. Joseph Strauss, Rear Adm. Elliott Strauss, became the third chairman of the Foundation, presiding over the Board of Directors until 1998. Capt. Kenneth Coskey, another former Deputy Director of the Naval Historical Center and a former POW who had spent over six years as a POW in Vietnam relieved Long as executive director in 1988.
During the 1990’s, the Foundation took several initiatives that would lead to an expansion of the size of the staff. With a $20,000 grant provided by Ambassador William H.G. Fitzgerald, the Foundation hired a graduate student, David Winkler, to conduct oral history work. Eventually, Winkler joined the staff to serve as the Foundation’s historian.
1998-1999 marked another shift in Foundation leadership as Admiral Holloway relieved the 95 year-old Strauss as Chairman and former Chief of Naval Aviation and Naval Reserve Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn replaced Holloway as president. Another former Deputy Director of Naval History, Capt. Charles T. Creekman relieved Captain Coskey as Executive Director.
Under the new regime, the oral history program expanded through the use of volunteers and a Naval Heritage Speakers program sent experts to address audiences around the country. Furthermore, the Foundation partnered with other organizations to sponsor numerous symposia and conferences on topical historical subjects. Another outreach initiative was the U.S. Navy Heritage Mini-Series, short history videos that were incorporated into the Navy’s General Military Training regimen. During this timeframe the publication of two coffee-table books contributed to the Foundation’s coffers. The Navy, known as the “White Book” was first published in 2000 and has undergone several reprints. This narrative treatment of American naval history has sold over 400,000 copies and remains in high demand. In contrast U.S. Navy, A Complete History, nicknamed the “Gray Book” printed three years later, provided a chronology
of U.S. Navy history through the war in Iraq and also sold well.
During the first decade of the 21st century the Foundation conducted a capital campaign to build out a Cold War Gallery for the Navy Museum in historic Building 70 at the Washington Navy Yard. Though several galleries were completed, the foundation ended its capital campaign following the tragic shootings at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013 that limited public assess to the Museum.
In 2008, Adm. Bruce DeMars relieved Adm. Holloway who had served as president and then chairman of the Foundation for a remarkable 28 years. Adm. Holloway served as Chairman Emeritus until his passing in September 2019.
Under Admiral DeMars leadership, the Foundation expanded its recognition programs. Included is the Commodore Dudley Knox Medal presented as a lifetime recognition award for a historian who contributed outstanding naval historical scholarship, mentorship for future historians, and leadership in the naval history and heritage field. Also inaugurated to recognize former president Vice Admiral Dunn, the foundation initiated the Vice Admiral Dunn NROTC Essay Contest for midshipmen attending the nation’s universities.
The Foundation has increased its electronic outreach efforts through publishing Naval History Book Reviews and supporting the International Journal of Naval History. Its weekly Thursday’s Tidings e-letter featuring naval history germane to current events has attracted a strong following. Second Saturday webinars also became a popular feature.
With Admiral DeMars retiring to Chairman Emeritus status, Adm. William J. Fallon assumed the chairman’s role. A accomplishment occurred in late 2018 with the foundation hosting a symposium to conduct a historical retrospective of the interdependence of the civilian nuclear power industry and the Navy’s reactors program. The symposium served as a clarion call to many who had been ignoring the decline of the nuclear power industry in recent decades.
Unfortunately, the pandemic shut down a major funding stream for the organization – hosting events in the Navy Museum. With senior foundation leadership proving incapable of addressing the cash flow deficit caused by the declining revenues, Admiral Fallon approached U.S. Naval Institute about a merger early in 2022 and after months of negotiations, the membership was informed in mid-November and asked to approve of the proposal on December 7. Despite vigorous opposition, the subsequent vote approved the merger and the foundation dissolved on December 31, 2022.
1 Ryan D. Wadle, Selling Sea Power: Public Relations and the U.S. Navy, 1917-1941. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, OK. (2019), pp. 61-62.
2 Incorporation document can be found at www.navyhistory.org.